Christianity in Russia

The Fifteen-Year Law: Christianity in the New Russia
April 1998

Ordinary people are always deceived by appearances and by the outcome of a thing;
and in the world there is nothing but ordinary people.
–Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

The world stood silent watching the dust settle after the failed 1991 coup attempt in Moscow. One of the most powerful nations of the twentieth century, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, had dissolved into its fifteen parts, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine. As the government restored order and democracy emerged triumphant in Russia, religious leaders in Russia and in countries around the world looked to the nation with eager and expectant eyes, contemplating the religious freedom made possible by the end of decades of Communist rule. For over seventy years the Communists had fought to beat religion of any type out of the people through persecution, legislation, and execution. Thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands lost the public expression of their faith. Many turned to atheism, while others continued to worship and believe in secret or under severe restriction. Led by President Boris Yeltsin, the new democratic government promised freedom, and faith began to reawaken and spread among the people. As an elderly woman said to a journalist in 1991 as the tanks rolled out of Moscow, “We kept faith and love alive all those years; now we have hope” (Billington 390).

The dominant religious presence in Russia throughout much of its history, the traditional Russian Orthodox Church had no trouble gaining interest and followers among a people hungry for spiritual fulfillment. At the same time, Catholic and Protestant missionaries from countries such as the United States came to spread their own faith in Russia. Several nontraditional groups came as well. These foreign groups met with great success, so much that they began to cause concern in the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government. These Russian powers soon initiated efforts to curb the influence of the foreign religious groups. The process stretched over several years and culminated in 1997 with the passage of a law essentially restricting all the new foreign religious groups to “informal group[s] of friends meeting for prayer in each other’s homes” (Uzzell C5). Entitled “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” it is a Machiavellian attempt to preserve both the Russian culture and the power and tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been the primary religious force in Russia for over one thousand years. Ever since 988, when Vladimir I recognized Christianity as an official religion, the Russian Orthodox Church has sustained the nation through its times of glory and sorrow (Wood 491). The church was “the very heart of the people and the nation–a moral, spiritual, and cultural example and teacher (Kishkovsky 936). When the Mongols invaded Russia in the 1400’s, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to provide strength, leadership, and hope (ibid.). The Church was a cultural institution as well as a spiritual one. The traditions and ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church regarding mortality, eternity, faith, truth, beauty, and purpose permeated all aspects of Russian life. As the Communists learned, “the only way to make Russia truly godless was to destroy all Russian literature, architecture, music, and art” (ibid.). Even when joined by other denominations and faiths, the Russian Orthodox Church remained the dominant religion. Although people in Russia also followed other beliefs such as Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and a few other Christian denominations, these groups never gained wide acceptance. Much like the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom, even nonmembers and atheists feel a “natural affinity” with the Church due to its cultural and historical significance (Slater 93).

The Communists took over in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and under Communist rule, all religions suffered great persecution, including the Russian Orthodox Church. Seeing religion as a threat to the state, the Communists did their best to abolish it. They seized churches, discriminated against believers to the point that they became “second- or third-class citizens,” and killed thousands of priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople (Kishkovsky 934). As the most powerful religious entity, the Russian Orthodox Church was hit hardest, leaving it short of clergymen, theologians, financial resources, and spiritual life even today (ibid.). However, despite all the persecution, faith and hope in God lived on in the lives of some of the Russian people. James H. Billington, former member of the Editorial Council of Theology Today, wrote about the hope which communism could not completely destroy:

It is…a hope revived in a Soviet death camp by the anonymous woman
who, when told they could have an Easter service only if they conducted it
waist-deep in a slowly freezing lake, sang out, ‘Christ is Risen…In truth he
is risen,’ and went on with the service. (390)

Toward the end of the 20th century, Russia experienced an opening to religion, followed by the fall of Communism and collapse of the Soviet state. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, in accordance with glasnost, or openness, helped push through the revolutionary “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” in 1990. This law equalized all religions under the law and set the people free to worship and believe as they wished without government interference or endorsement (Wood 492). It also permitted the establishment of religious schools, churches’ ownership of property, publication and distribution of religious literature, and freedom from registration with the government (ibid.). Soon thereafter, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and communism in Russia ended. A group of Communist nationalists attempted a coup and failed, and the Communists were stripped of their power. Yeltsin, who had been serving as president of the Russian Republic while Russia was still part of the USSR, assumed sole authority over his nation when the USSR dissolved in December 1991. A few years later, in 1993, the Russian Federation adopted a democratic constitution which guaranteed basic civil rights to the people. It reaffirmed the separation of church and state set forth in the 1990 law on religion, and “guaranteed the ‘equality of all persons’ on account of religion” (Davis 646). The future of religious freedom in Russia seemed quite secure (ibid.).

With the new freedom of religion, the people of Russia and the evangelical Christians around the world exercised this new freedom. The Russian people embraced faith and religion in general, including the Russian Orthodox Church. Whereas during the Communist rule only 25% believed in God, by 1991 that number had jumped to around 45%, even higher among the elderly, meaning that a third of those who were once atheists were now theists (Greeley 257). In 1988 the Russian Orthodox Church operated about fifty churches in Moscow, with the rest having been seized, converted to warehouses or office buildings, or destroyed. In 1993 the Church operated 250 Orthodox churches in Moscow (Kishkovsky 934). Taking advantage of the new openness to religion, Catholic and mainline Protestant missionaries from many countries, particularly the United States, Finland, and South Korea, came to Russia in droves. The Roman Catholic Church established and re-established so many local parishes, as well as the seminary in St. Petersburg and the Jesuit orders, that the 1997 law choking off its activities is unenforceable in their case (Uzzell C5). Mainline Protestant groups such as the Baptists and Methodists also came to Russia to preach, teach, plant churches, and provide other types of aid, as well as “massive religious crusades and television programs” led by evangelists such as Billy Graham and Pat Robertson (Wood 492, 499). As Leonid Kishkovsky said in 1993, “On most flights from the U.S. to Russia you will find several dozen missionaries” (935). The openness also attracted several nontraditional groups which are regarded by many in the United States and Russia as cults. These include widespread organizations such as the Mormons, Hare Krishnas (which claim up to 700,000 followers), the Unification Church, the Scientologists (over 12,000 followers just in Moscow), Satanists, and Moonies, as well as smaller, localized groups such as the “Mother of God” cult and “Vissarion’s Church of the Last Precept” (Maryniak 142, Degerlund). The youth of Russia were quite receptive to religious thought, and these groups had great success in attracting converts among them (Degerlund).

Despite the relatively low percentage of adherence to Catholic, Protestant, and fringe groups, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government saw these groups as a threat to their power and their nation. To the Russian Orthodox Church, these groups provide religious competition, and for a church that has been in power for one thousand years, competition was not an inviting prospect. To put it more bluntly, “the main church doesn’t like any rivals,” according to Alexander Zaichenko, who helped initiate the academic program at the evangelical Russian American Christian University in Moscow (Murphy). The outside groups, especially the evangelical and New Age ones, offer a more exciting and sensational system of belief and worship than the more subdued and ritualized Russian Orthodox Church (Slater 92). In accordance with human nature and, ironically, the Soviet regime, most Church officials refused to willingly give up part of their power. Allegations of “religious bribery, illegal religious activities, proselytizing, and religious bribery, even coercion,” began to circulate (Wood 493).

Furthermore, in light of the historical and cultural importance of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian government saw the foreign religions as a threat to the state and the people. An anonymous man outside the Kremlin expressed its feelings well when he yelled to the surrounding crowd that “foreign missionaries and Jews are destroying our fatherland” (Murphy). In their eyes, with the Western missionaries came Western culture, which is directly contrary to the traditional Russian culture and feared by many other nations around the world. As Bernadette Perkins said, “Many in Russia want to see Russia as a democratic nation which will form its own way based upon its heritage without influence from the West” (Perkins 170). In light of their success in winning converts among them, the government also felt concern about the influence these groups held over the youth in particular, and viewed the groups as dangerous threats to the welfare of the Russian youth (Degerlund).

In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli argued that “a wise ruler…cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance of faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons which made him promise are removed” (44). Russia had previously agreed to uphold and preserve freedom of religion both in international human rights treaties and in its own 1990 law on religion. But apparently the Church and the Russian government believed that “a man who wishes to make a vocation of being good at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not so good,” so they chose self-preservation over upright behavior, beginning work on legislation designed to curb the activity and influence of these foreign religious groups (Machiavelli 38). They produced the first draft in 1993, a more oppressive law which reverted all new religious groups (pre-1990) to second-class status, directly opposing the 1990 religion law and the new 1993 constitution. All religious organizations were required to register with the government before beginning operation (Wood 498). The government could require all organizations established before October 1990 to wait up to one year for approval and also submit “special additional documentation.” The law also restricted the activity of foreigners. No foreign religious groups could engage in “missionary, publishing, advertising, and disseminating activities.” This essentially restricted their work to existing churches and prevented the active spreading of their faith except through the work of official Russian groups. (ibid., 501). The law passed through Parliament, but President Yeltsin vetoed it due to its conflicts with the constitution and the international human rights agreements to which Russia was bound. Parliament drafted and passed another bill allowing foreign groups to “form religious communities but not to engage in activity of a missionary character” later that year, a law which Yeltsin also vetoed (501). After the second veto, the issue settled down for a few years in a legislative sense, mulled over a few times without coming to a vote again (Davis 647).

In July 1997, Yeltsin vetoed another, even more restrictive religious law, only to sign a slightly modified version of the same law two months later in September. Called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” on the surface it appears to be a reaffirmation of religious freedom and a framework for religious activity. Using phrases such as “freedom of conscience and freedom of creed,” “equality before the law,” and “mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect” in the introduction, in many ways it appears democratic and modern (JCS 1301). Articles 3 and 4 go to great lengths to make clear the division between church and state and the individual right to personal faith and practice or lack thereof (1302, 1303). The main difference between this law and the 1993 laws is a distinction, described in Articles 7, 8, and 27, between “religious organizations,” which have been legal entities in Russia for at least fifteen years, and “religious groups,” which have not. Religious organizations, a label including the Russian Orthodox Church along with Islamic, Jewish, and Buddhist institutions, have the right to own property, worship freely, publish and distribute religious literature, operate schools, and have their clergymen exempted from military service. They must register with the government each year, operate under their charters, which must be submitted to the government, and inform the government of any changes to their charters. Religious groups, on the other hand, are not required to register unless seeking status as a religious organization, but have severely limited rights. They may not own property, maintain their own religious buildings, publish or distribute literature, minister outside of their church, invite foreigners to preach or teach, operate seminaries or schools, or have their clergymen exempt from military service (1305-1307, 1316-1317). This essentially reduces them to “informal group[s] of friends meeting for prayer in each other’s homes” (Uzzell C5). This law applies to all religious institutions or groups which were not present and legally recognized in Russia during after the end of Communist rule, including the Pentecostals, Mormons, most Baptists and other Protestant denominations, Unitarians, Hare Krishnas, and Scientologists.

This “Fifteen-Year Law” is filled with contradictions, both within the law itself and with other laws and agreements, and was written and passed in a rather clandestine manner. One of its main points in the first sections is an emphasis on religious freedom which other points deeper in the law override. Article 3.1 claims that each citizen has the right to “freedom of conscience and of creed,” including “the freedom to choose, change, possess, or disseminate religious or other convictions and to act in accordance with them,” only to later restrict this freedom of dissemination retroactively (JCS 1302). Article 3.5 prohibits the persuasion of others regarding “the forming of [one’s] attitudes toward religion, the confessing or refusing to confess a religion,” and the “realization of the right to freedom of conscience.” Also forbidden is the “attraction of minors to religious associations…against their will or without the agreement of their parents and guardians” (1303). In other words, it requires parental approval for adherence to a religion by a young person, even though each citizen has the guaranteed right in Article 3.1 “to confess…any religion or not to confess any” (1302).

In addition to the numerous internal contradictions, the law directly contradicts several international human rights agreements as well as the Russian Federation’s constitution. Russia has signed several international human rights agreements which this law contradicts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Final Act, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (Davis 654). Furthermore, the 1993 Russian constitution declares that “the human being, his rights, and freedoms shall be the supreme values of the Russian Federation” and that “religious organizations shall be separated from the State, and shall be equal before the law” (Davis 646). Apparently the Russian government decided to neglect this part of their foundation document.

Furthermore, Yeltsin and Parliament approved the final version of the law in relative secrecy. Nils Degerlund, an independent Baptist missionary in Russia when the bill was signed, wrote a letter to the Baptists in America just before the approval of the law. In the letter he told them that he “[had] not met any Russians who know about this,” because “their lawmakers have been discussing it behind closed doors for the past several months,” and “there has been little if any news of this bill in the papers, radio, or on television.” Several groups affected by the law, who had been working on the problem with members of Parliament, claimed that “the final version was far more restrictive than an earlier version of the law that had been shared with them and to which they had given tacit approval” (Davis 649). As well as ignoring its own constitution, the Russian government apparently no longer considers it necessary to inform the Russian people of its plans before carrying them out, whether those activities concern the people or not.

This law is an important and ominous step toward a return to religious authoritarianism. The Russian Orthodox Church, as the major beneficiary of the law, keeps its power largely intact while the groups which threaten it are bound by legal chains. Without the open competition with the Catholic, Protestant, and New Age groups, the Russian Orthodox Church is free to carry on its mission without being as distracted or afraid. The Russian Orthodox Church will surely continue to grow in power in terms of members and finances. The religious associations classified as “religious groups” by the law have two choices. They can either operate under the constraints of the law, wait until fifteen years have passed, and apply for status as a religious organization, or they can go underground and operate illegally, carrying on their activities as usual such as the publication/dissemination of literature and the sharing of their faith with others. Degerlund asked the American Baptists to pray for the Independent Baptists in Russia as they decide how to handle their ministry under the new law, implying that this would involve the underground option. During the Communist regime, underground churches did not experience particularly kind treatment at the hands of the authorities upon their discovery, and in recent years, the Communist party is playing an increasingly role in the government. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, was a KGB informer during Soviet rule, and his top legal advisor is “a former official of the anti-religious Soviet Council for Religious Affairs” (Uzzell C5). With powers like these against them, the future of underground churches could prove very difficult indeed.

Thus, as a restriction of individual and collective freedom, the law is a regressive step toward governmental authoritarianism and communism, the same powers which tried to destroy religion of any kind in Russia for over seventy years. Since communism fell, the nation has suffered from political, economic, and religious instability, and in order to stay in power the government must stabilize the nation. Thus, the government, particularly the rising Communist party, could “use the Russian Orthodox Church to restore order, to act as the new foundation of Russian society.” It would be a tool for the government to heighten its own power and keep the people pacified (Perkins 168). Paving the way for that course of action, the people of Russia are accustomed to authoritarian rule and the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church, and many of the people of the nation would like to see a return to that state (159). In fact, many Russians would even like to see a return to pre-Soviet Russia, which would possess these authoritarian attributes without the harsh oppression of the Soviet state. With Orthodoxy now virtually the state religion, and the people longing for the old ways, how can democracy survive, since democracy and Orthodoxy are incompatible? (175).

What the government and Russian Orthodox Church have done is contrary to the democratic ideals of freedom. But since the people are so accustomed to such actions from the seventy years of Communist rule, they may not mind enough to do anything to protest it. For instance, although 80% of people favor equal rights for all denominations, 70% of the Russian people are Orthodox and do not belong to any of the new religious groups. Catholics and Protestants account for less than 3% combined. (Nickles 54). Thus they may not mind the loss of freedom for religious groups to which they have no loyalty. Furthermore, as Derek H. Davis of Baylor University points out, after hundreds of years of domination by the Russian Orthodox Church, they do not know how to handle religious pluralism, and “seemingly would rather the new government step in and attempt to fill the void with a new public philosophy” (653). What, then, is to stop those in power from continuing toward Machiavellian restriction of other freedoms and eventually restoring an authoritarian state?

No one knows for certain what will happen in Russia. This decade is a very turbulent time for the nation as it tries to stabilize an economic system it has never experienced and a system of government which it has never fully tried. Perhaps Russia will return to authoritarianism or communism. Perhaps the people will fight back, protesting the law, refusing to either enforce it or abide by it, and demanding that the government return their religious freedom. The area of religion has seen some of the greatest changes since the fall of Communism, but how long those changes will last is dependant on the future actions of the government, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the people who supposedly hold the power in this newly democratic nation.